During the filming of Terminator Salvation, Christian Bale exploded in a fit of anger after Shane Hurlbut, director of photography, accidentally walked on set. Bale threatened to assault Hurlbut and wanted him fired if he erred again.
Day’s later, Bale apologized. The message in his apology was dramatically different.
“I got annoyed, and then what happened, I made it ugly, and that was awful of me. I took it way too far […] when I’m saying I’m not coming back from that set if he’s hired, you know what, it’s hot air. I don’t believe that. I have no intention of getting anybody fired” —Christian Bale. 1
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On the surface, Bale’s behavior makes little sense. Why would Bale say something he didn’t believe? Especially when doing so threatened his reputation and the quality of his relationships.
You’ve likely done this yourself. Maybe you said something hurtful during an argument. Or, possibly you overreacted at work when you felt frustrated or anxious.
If so, I’m guessing you paid the price for your actions. Rarely do these outbursts improve the situation. Countless people have lost jobs or damaged relationships as a result of losing their cool.
What’s odd is most people can’t explain why they act this way. Statements like “I have no idea what came over me” are common.
In this article, I’ll teach you why these outbursts happen by describing what I call the logic switch. This knowledge will prevent your emotions from taking over so you can regain control of your life.
To describe the logic switch, I’ll begin with a simplified explanation of how the brain works.
Note: The brain is far more complex than what I’m about to describe. But, you don’t need to know high-level details about the brain to succeed in life, like you don’t need to know how to repair a car’s engine to be a great driver.
To avoid the extinction list for six million years, the human brain had to be great at two things. Those are thinking and responding to threats. Specific regions of the brain evolved to handle both tasks.
A region of your brain known as the cerebral cortex handles high-level thinking. The thinking brain allows you to plan, process language, and build complex objects like smartphones. However, this processing power comes at the expense of being slow.
In critical situations, the thinking brain can’t think fast enough to save your life. If our ancestors had needed time to decide if running from a tiger was a good idea, you wouldn’t be reading this article.
In short, the thinking brain is smart but slow.
A region of your brain known as the amygdala makes up for the thinking brain’s lack of speed. Besides regulating emotion, the reacting brain makes split-second decisions that keep you alive when faced with threats. It does this by activating the fight or flight response.
The reacting brain’s speed also comes with a cost. Without time to think, reacting-brain decisions lack logic.
In short, the reacting brain is fast but dumb.
Here’s how it works.
Environmental cues enter your brain via the five senses—sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.
If the cue is non-threatening, the traffic director sends the information to the thinking brain. Your thinking brain forms a logical response, then sends the cue to the reacting brain for emotional processing.
However, if the cue is threatening, the traffic director saves time by sending the information directly to the reacting brain. It’s as if the traffic director flips a logic switch that shuts off the thinking brain—giving you the ability to react quickly without thinking.
And herein lies the problem. Acting without thinking is good when avoiding a snake, but it’s bad when responding to your spouse.
What’s critical to understand is that emotions can also shut off the thinking brain. As the strength of your emotions increases, your ability to think logically decreases. So your thinking is likely impaired whenever you feel overly afraid, anxious, or excited. After all, there’s a reason why phrases like “blinded by love” or “in a blind rage” exist.
This lesson is one of the most important things you can learn about your brain. Essentially, this information tells you that your brain has a smart state and a dumb state.
In the smart state, your logic switch is on, and the thinking brain is engaged. In the dumb state, your logic switch is off, and your reacting brain is engaged.
One of the easiest ways to improve your life is to stop making decisions when your brain is in the dumb state. I know that sounds like an overly simplified thing to say, but it’s true. So many of life’s problems are caused by making decisions when the logic switch is off.
The logic switch explains why people say hurtful things they don’t mean in the middle of an argument. It explains why someone dumps their life savings into a Ponzi scheme. And it explains why people who are infatuated get married after two weeks of dating.
When the logic switch is on, you experience many benefits. Here are a few examples.
Given this information, there’s tremendous value in learning how to turn the logic switch back on.
Turning the logic switch back on is a two-step process.
We know that strong emotions turn the logic switch off. Therefore, you can identify when you’re not thinking logically by learning to become aware of your emotions.
This is a challenging first step. Studies show that 64% of us are unable to identify our emotions. Thankfully, the following three ideas can help.
1. Try to identify what emotions you are feeling a few times per day. To do this, select a few random times throughout the day to examine your emotions. Describe how you are feeling in as much detail as possible. Don’t worry if you find this challenging at first. It will get easier with time.
2. Try to identify when you feel a sudden change of emotion. In this step, don’t focus on what caused the emotion. Instead, focus on trying to recognize a sudden rush of emotion. You might notice a tightness in your chest, butterflies in your stomach, or feel your heart rate increase. These physical cues are helpful because they are warning signs that suggest your thinking may be impaired.
3. Identify what triggered the change of emotion. Once you can identify a sudden shift in emotion, you’ll want to identify the trigger. Maybe you feel angry when your boss dumps a last-minute project on your desk. Or, perhaps you feel frustrated when your spouse takes hours to respond to a text message.
When you know what triggers your emotions, you can use that knowledge to identify when your logic switch is off.
The logic switch turns off when strong emotions elevate specific chemicals in the brain. The logic switch turns on when brain chemistry returns to normal. This process can take anywhere from 6 seconds to 20 minutes. 5 6
When you feel strong emotions, the best thing you can do is wait. Resist the urge to react. Don’t say or do the first thing that comes to mind.
Instead, give yourself at least 6 seconds to take a breath and think. If your emotions are intense, give yourself 20 minutes to calm down before taking action.
This pause can have a dramatic effect.
Reacting after your boss dumps a last-minute assignment on your desk might sound like: “How do you expect me to get this done? You have no respect for my personal time.”
Responding after your boss dumps a last-minute assignment on your desk might sound like: “I understand this assignment is important, but I’ve got a lot on my plate. If this assignment is the priority, we’ll have to set a new timeline for my other projects.”
Here are two common problems you might experience when applying these ideas.
Our ancestors could make two mistakes.
With the cost of not reacting being so high, evolution programmed us to react. Anyone who needed excess levels of motivation to react didn’t survive. For this reason, reacting is an effortless process.
Overcoming the instinct to react is hard because it goes against your nature. However, thanks to neuroplasticity, the more you remember to respond rather than react, the easier it gets.
Here are some tips for overcoming this sticking point.
1. Identify when you react. If you’ve experienced something emotional, analyze your behavior after you calm down. Look for examples of when you said things you didn’t mean or acted impulsively.
2. Stop yourself from reacting. Once you’re aware of how you react, use that knowledge to stop yourself before you do. This step is challenging but becomes easier with practice.
Some people try to control their emotions in an attempt to keep the logic switch on. At first glance, this idea makes sense. After all, if you prevent yourself from feeling strong emotions, your logic switch will never get turned off.
Unfortunately, this approach will never work. That’s because emotions are an essential part of being human. Our emotions act as important cues that keep us alive and guide us through life.
For example, fear acts as a cue to find safety, loneliness acts as a cue to create social connections, and happiness suggests that you’re doing the right thing.
So, rather than trying to get rid of your emotions, your goal is to learn how to manage them.
Here’s one way you can take the ideas in this article too far.
You question every action you take. Remember, I’m not asking you to analyze and obsess over every action you take. Doing so will make you an anxious mess. To avoid this problem, focus on questioning your behavior only when you feel strong emotions.
Here are the key takeaways from this article.
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